29 January 2018

China’s Understanding of Global Order Shouldn’t Be Ours


Niall Ferguson is a prolific public intellectual who has made a career out of shattering shibboleths. At various points he has defended the achievements of the British Empire, argued that the United Kingdom’s entry into the First World War was “the biggest error in modern history,” and made the case at length that Henry Kissinger is a misunderstood idealist. Ferguson is at it again. In a recent op-ed, he takes on what he describes as the prevailing “myth of the liberal international order.” This piece appeared in China’s Global Times, a pugnacious nationalistic tabloid published by the official People’s Daily. It is not surprising, then, that the view it presents happens to conform quite closely with the official Chinese Communist Party line. It is also, in important respects, mistaken and misleading.

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According to Ferguson, the notion that a liberal international order was created at the end of World War II by far-sighted British and American statesmen determined to avoid “the terrible mistakes of the 1930s and 1940s” is “a fairy tale” and “a historical fantasy.” Rather than “a truly international order,” what emerged after the war was a “bipolar order” that divided the world into “two empires.”

He argues that it was only in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, that it became possible to build a genuine liberal international order, one characterized by “truly free trade, truly free capital flows and large-scale migration across borders.” This new order was “hugely beneficial” to China, but one of its primary pillars was also what Ferguson describes as a “harmonious relationship” between China and America.

In Ferguson’s telling, the collapse of that new order began in 2008 with the onset of the global financial crisis. The lingering aftereffects of the crisis fueled “popular disillusionment with globalization” and cleared the way for the eventual election of U.S. President Donald Trump. In response to what Ferguson describes as the recent American “volte-face” on trade, Beijing has sought to advance its own “alternative vision of international order,” most notably in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2017 speech at Davos in which he “made the case for globalization.”

Looking ahead, Ferguson sees only two scenarios. In one, disputes over trade and geopolitics cause the United States and China to fall into a tightening “Thucydides Trap” that could well end in a catastrophic conflict. In the other, the two Pacific giants “recognize their common interests” and find ways to work together.

The first thing to note about this account is how it echoes Beijing’s own narrative. Both portray the United States as a self-interested imperial power, albeit a rather incompetent one. Today, it is America’s alleged turn toward protectionism that threatens to destroy the open global trading system. By contrast, China’s wise leaders helped save the world from an even worse disaster in 2008 by unleashing a massive stimulus program, and they are now trying to save it again by championing the cause of continued economic openness. Like Ferguson, Chinese pundits and propagandists are eager to emphasize the supposed implications of the “Thucydides Trap”: The United States must abandon its confrontational ways and seek closer cooperation with China. The only alternative is war.

There are a number of obvious problems with all this. To begin at the beginning: Ferguson uses the term “liberal international order” to refer to a global system characterized by unrestricted flows of goods, capital, and people. But an international order does not have to be global in scope, and a liberal order, properly understood, involves far more than just free trade.

Despite the fond hopes of some Western statesmen (and, as Ferguson rightly observes, the retrospective imaginings of many contemporary political scientists), what emerged from the ashes of the Second World War was not a full-fledged global system built on liberal principles. But neither was it an empire like the one established by Moscow on its side of the Iron Curtain.

What took shape in the West in the postwar era was a partial, geographically limited liberal international order: a system of states that would eventually comprise North America, most of Western Europe, and much of East Asia. While it initially contained a few illiberal outliers, the members of this system were increasingly drawn together by a shared commitment to certain universal principles (including the importance of individual freedom, political equality, democratic self-government, and the rule of law), by alliances and multilateral consultative mechanisms, and, in time, by widening flows of trade and investment.

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